The Devil of Nanking | Mo Hayder | Book Review

First, a short history lesson…

In high school we are taught about many important events in our history classes; World War II, Pearl Harbor, the Civil Rights Movement, and The Great Depression, just to name a few. But not many of us, (in fact, no one I personally know,) was educated on the Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking.

This gruesome event took place in the (then) capital of China, Nanking, in 1937. China estimates that the Imperial Japanese Army murdered anywhere from 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians, and perpetuated widespread rape and looting.

As an adult, I often wonder why this wasn’t in our high school history books, along with Unit 731.

Allow me to get off track for just a second to give you some information about this other important piece of Chinese/Japanese history…

Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army. They conducted horrendous human experiments, torturing and murdering countless Chinese civilians in atrocious and heinous ways, all in the name of “science.” *Insert eyeroll here.* This event took place at the same time as World War II, 1937-1945, right after the Nanking Massacre, and is responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Imperial Japan. Perhaps we didn’t learn of Unit 731 in history books because the United States government gave secret immunity to the researchers involved, in exchange for the data they gathered through their extremely f*cked up human experiments. True story.

Regardless, I did my own extensive research on both of these tragic historical events by myself. Since discovering these atrocities, I have always been both appalled by and curious about this piece of history. Although The Devil of Nanking is not a true story, it immediately spoke to me because part of the novel is based in 1937 Nanking.

Please note: The Devil of Nanking is fiction. If you’re looking for books on the actual historical events, (either the Nanking Massacre or Unit 731,) please let me know in the comments and I’d be more than happy to recommend some books on those subjects.


Grey is a young woman with a mysterious and complicated past. Knowing very little about her, including her real name, we follow Grey to Japan where she has finally found the Nanking survivor she’s been seeking for nine years, seven months, and eighteen days.

Knowing that Chongming has a rare piece of footage that is said to document a particularly heinous event of the 1937 Nanking Massacre, she is willing to do nearly anything to witness the footage, which no one has ever seen. Luckily for Grey, Chongming will show her the film if she can pull off what seems to be a nearly impossible, and deadly, task.

Her motives unknown, this quest takes Grey to some of the most perilous corners of Japan and puts her in more danger than she ever could’ve imagined. The further Grey goes to complete her assignment, the more we discover about her history, as well as Chongming’s.

My Review

There are two stories simultaneously being told in The Devil of Nanking:

Grey: Present day, 1990. Grey is working as a hostess at one of Japan’s upscale nightclubs to make ends meet while she pesters away at Chongming for access to a film that he refuses to admit exists… That is, until he realizes that Grey can potentially obtain something he’s been looking for his whole life. Although Grey knows it might get her killed, she’s willing to do anything to get her hands on this footage. Which makes you wonder, why is Grey so desperate to see this horrible footage? What is she hiding?

Chongming: Chongming hasn’t let himself think about Nanking in a very long time. But now that Grey has come into his life, it’s suddenly all he can think about. Chongming decides to rediscover and read his old diary, which documents his first person experiences surviving the 1937 Nanking Massacre. But why has it been so long since Chongming has allowed his mind to wander to Nanking? Is he hiding something as well?

Although fiction, while reading The Devil of Nanking it is clear that Mo Hayder has spent significant time in Japan and that she also did her research on the Nanking Massacre. I discovered after reading this that Mo Hayder lived in Japan and worked as a hostess, like Grey, and it truly does show! Her writing style and accuracy throughout this book is a force to be reckoned with.

I honestly couldn’t tell you which story I found more fascinating. Each time a chapter ended, I was excited to pick up where I left off on the last story, and I can’t say that about many novels with this type of format.

Additionally, the writing styles of each story are very different than one another, which I found to be very accurate, appealing, and kept the story moving forward in a very unique way. I felt like I was being propelled back and fourth between 1937 and 1990 successfully, which I imagine, can’t be an easy thing to execute! It is quite an adventure.

Speaking of adventure… Normally, I don’t love a narrator who is as out of her mind as Grey is at times, but because of her unpredictable and often dangerously impulsive behavior, we are sincerely taken on a roller coaster ride. I ended up really loving her chapters because of her mystery, her blind determination, her faults, her checkered past, and her crippling socially awkward behavior. For a character who was often times very unrelatable, I ended up liking her a lot more than I expected.

I also must mention that there is such a wild array of characters in each of the stories that I was truly obsessed with them all. Some are captivating, some are disturbing, a couple are amusing, and then a handful were downright terrifying. Some of them were all of the above.

They’re also written so well that I felt like I knew them, but the truth is, most of them were so strange and unique that I couldn’t fully relate them to anyone that I’ve ever known. While this could sound like it could be a bad thing, I promise you that it is not. The character’s individuality and uniqueness managed to make the story a one of a kind thrilling and terrifying tale.

There are moments of this book that are truly frightening, as you can imagine, but there are some disturbing moments that I never would’ve seen coming. So, be forewarned that this is not for the weak of heart or faint of stomach, but also do know that is is fairly tasteful and not extremely descriptive or gruesome solely for shock’s sake, which is an important distinction in my opinion.

I finished this book in two days, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for another two weeks.

Every time I picked up a new book, I kept thinking about how I already wanted to re-read The Devil of Nanking. It’s going to be a long time until I find something that lives up to this one.

I loved it.

My Rating: ★★★★★

Please let me know your thoughts!

Did you read this? D

o you know of something similar?

Did you learn about the Nanking Massacre or Unit 731 when you were in high shcool?

I’m dying to hear from you!



6 responses to “The Devil of Nanking | Mo Hayder | Book Review”

    • Thanks so much! Disturbing is really the best way to describe this book, but I truly loved it. Googling Nanking is a depressing hole to go down, but it’s an important piece of history!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review! I did know about this part of history though not from school. I lived in Asia as a kid plus my dad is a huge history buff. I agree that it should be covered in history classes but there is a lot that Japan did that is unknown in the West. Iris Chang wrote a non-fiction book called The Rape of Nanking that is very good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I am definitely going to check that book out! It’s hard to believe some of the things that happened on that side of the world, because like you said… It’s just unknown to the west! I am looking forward to learning more though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I hate to admit my forays into history were mainly Eurocentric, except the few times my Dad told me about his small role as a draftee in World War II. It was much later when loose chapters of that traumatic experience hit my desk (don’t ask). My Army unit participated in the Boxer Rebellion and still bears the pidgin English motto “Can Do.” Thanks for bringing this up. I’ll read up on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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